What’s in a name?


 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography


Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.


I’m sick

I’m sick.

I’m sick of taking tablets and injecting myself.

I’m sick of doctor’s appointments.

I’m sick of pain.

I’m sick of being dependent.

I’m sick of being limited.

I’m sick of having ‘to be brave’ when in reality I’m not.

I’m sick of wondering if it will get better or not.

I’m sick of the ideas people have about my sickness when they know nothing about it.

I’m sick of looking at people with no major health problems and feeling jealous.

I’m sick and I am strong.

I’m sick and I accept that.

I’m sick of being lonely in crowds.

I’m sick and I laugh about it.

I’m sick of the well-meaning people who get it badly wrong.

I’m sick of explaining that there’s much I can do, actually.

I’m sick, and with that come many gifts and insights otherwise unavailable to me.

I’m sick and I need you.

I’m sick and I know what it does to me.

I’m sick and I get scared.

I’m sick and that changes what I care about.

I’m sick and I have perspective.

I’m sick and that leads me to great thankfulness.

I’m sick which means I am accustomed to waiting.

I’m sick and there are days I feel helpless.

I’m sick and that costs money.

I’m sick and that brings the judgements of others with it.

I’m sick which means I have lost much.

I’m sick and sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.

I’m sick and the reactions of others causes me concern.

I’m sick and sometimes I act as if I’m not.

I’m sick which means I grieve.

Inspired by 35 things you may not know about my invisible illness

On being a pharisee for justice

Bev a few minutes after breaking her wrist

It’s been a rubbish 6 weeks. We live in a country that’s not the one of our birth, nor indeed the one in which we’ve lived the marjoity of the majority of our lives. So doing what I do (leading a church), in a foreign context rife with material and social need is a draining experience. Unsurprisingly we often find ourselves looking forward to our holidays. A recent trip back to the UK was going pretty well from that point of view until my wife was walking down the street and got distracted by a fire engine. She stumbled on the pavement, and fell forwards. She instinctively put her arms out to break her fall. Instinct can save us, or it can break us. It broke Bev. Her full, gravitationally assisted body-weight plus the mass of a full backpack was channeled through her wrists, leaving her in agony. The result was a broken and dislocated right wrist.

This led to our stay in the UK being extended by a week so she could have an operation. There were good sides to this – extended time with people we love – but it was stressful, painful and inconvenienced us a great deal . In my case it meant that I had to do a great deal many many more things – if one arm is completely out of use, the other half of the partnership has to help out. At least is was her right-hand; imagine if it had been her dominant left hand…

We’d been back a week or so when our two dogs got into a squabble with each other over some food. Bev attempted to reach for their collars to pull them apart, but she was off-balance due to her arm in plaster. The result was that her left hand missed the collar and found a way between the jaws of one of the dogs, which managed to bite all the way through one of the bones on her middle finger. Another stay in hospital, another operation, another hand out of action. More pain, more inconvenience.

Bev, a couple of hours after having her finger bitten

Life went from hard to very ******* hard. We are both tired and stressed, seemingly all the time. There’s always something to be done, something to be helped with. At some point in all this – I can’t quite remember when – I found myself, somewhat incongruously, thinking ‘I’m really looking forward to the World Cup’.  Now I always look forward to the World Cup; I always really enjoy it. Something about the way I was anticipating it seemed a little odd, though; until the insight dawned that it was because the tournament represented something purely fun, for which I didn’t have to take any responsibility. I could anticipate it with no sense of ‘I’ll have to do this’; yes, I could watch games with others if I wanted to; or by myself. That was the extent of the decisions facing me. The World Cup just represented simple fun.

The World Cup is taking place in Brazil. Ordinarily, in a situation like this, I’d be all over the social justice issues around this  – the public money spent on stadia and other preparations in a country of such poverty; the abusive, controlling approach of overseers FIFA and so on. It’s all entertainingly and intelligently summed up here:

This time, though, whilst I have done some reading and thinking on these things, I haven’t bought the same passion or activism to it. This time, I’m just too tired, too stressed, too in need of some fun. Anyway, I think to myself, enjoying the sport and protesting the pain are not mutually exclusive. Which meant I’ve had to bite my social media tongue at the well-meant but wearying injunctions to ignore the sport and feel the pain. I can’t. Others can, but this time I just can’t. In doing so, I’ve recognised something.

That something is this: that it’s easy to be right in the wrong way. Among other things I’m experiencing a kind of compassion fatigue. I recognised much of myself in an article you can read by clicking here. I am worn out, by everything from the every day need around me to the unique needs I’ve found myself up against over recent months: my wife reduced to half an operational hand out of two, a friend murdered by terrorists, living with my own chronic illnesses. It’s hard to give out more. My capacity is reduced. This has opened my eyes to how easy it can be to use the right thing in the wrong way, to use guilt as a shortcut to motivation. A motivation which will inevitably die out. Do you have enough friends of different ethnicities? Do you shop ethically? Think what happens to the planet because of the car you drive! Do you really know people in poverty? What about the daily atrocities in places of which you’ve never heard?

On it could go. We all do it. Guilt for change. Pharisees for justice.

We need the angry. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of complacency; often we need to be uncomfortable. Never at the expense of grace, though. God knows we can’t get it all right all the time. He doesn’t expect us to. He does expect us to have soft hearts, hands calloused from service, minds busied with seeking the third way. He knows better than you and me , however, that we’re irredeemably tainted by sin and injustice; so those of us born with such need grace, not condemnation. The former will leave us freer to act; the latter will end up dragging us down into inaction and exhaustion.

I, you, we need grace. We need some slack.  Let’s beware of becoming social justice pharisees, those who trade guilt for activism. Sometimes it’s OK to just enjoy, the better to gain the energy we need to actually do something.

Kettle boiling, TV on, happy days.

TV ready…

Preview magazines ready…

Wall-chart ready…

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Let’s get this straight: there are too many superhero movies around. It seems that big title film-makers are losing their capacity to tell big, high concept, blockbuster stories in something resembling the real world. That doesn’t mean that individual films aren’t fun or entertaining or stimulating, but people cannot live on superheroes alone. That said, this new X-Men movie is the most heralded since Avengers. 

There’s a few reasons for this. One is this film’s much-trumpeted story-telling ambitions, of which more shortly. Another, to be frank, is that the series really hasn’t been up to much since the second film in 2003. So when it emerged that the director of the first 2 films, Bryan Singer, was returning to the helm for this one, expectations rose. He’s clever, exciting film-maker. Anyone who announced his talent with a film as clever, inventive, rewarding and memorable as The Usual Suspects is going to bring something worth seeing to his films.

This latest film doesn’t make many concessions to a viewer who hasn’t seen previous installments in the series; which doesn’t seem to be hitting the film’s profits too much, but perhaps should be a warning to the casual watcher. We start at a point in the future where intelligent robot-types (Sentinels) have been developed to hunt and fight mutants; Professor Xavier and his followers are fighting a losing battle which is tearing the planet apart. So a solution is hit upon; send Wolverine back in time to solve the problem (think Terminator) before it occurs. So we’re now in the 1970s; it’s time, you’d think for all sorts of people-out-of-time gags, but this is a film with a serious tone. It’s not entirely straight-faced, but it’s not played for laughs. The inherent contradictions of time-travel are greeted with all but a wink at the camera in moments of exposition, but other than that the film embraces inherent absurdity with enthusiasm.

Largely it works well; where it doesn’t it’s because there are just too many characters for us to engage properly with the ones we really need to. I’m also still a bit unconvinced by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. I know I’m in the minority here, but all he seems to do is get angry and glower and punch. What’s good about the film is a wit and inventiveness that’s largely been missing for the past few films; there’s a light touch to a couple of action scenes, including one taking an unashamed cue from The Matrix that’s so good you laugh with it and want to applaud at the end. It’s also, for the first time in several films, really about something bigger than itself. It’s embracing the definitive X-Men themes of how people deal with difference; add to that a key thread of the story that touches on how, if at all, we can seek healing for hurt and trauma, and we’re in territory some of the previous films didn’t dare to touch. That the film carries this off, whilst not stinting on spectacle and entertainment reminds us just what a skilful director Singer can be and how much the series has missed him having his hands on the steering wheel.

Days Of Future Past is not the giant leap forward some anticipated, but it is a big step in the right direction for a series that had been meandering and taking an audience for granted for far too long. Lesson: keep giving big films to proper directors.

I saw this film in 3d.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The World’s End (2013)

I was trawling through my music collection recently and I realised afresh that I’ve been buying less music than I used to. That’s a common pattern, I think; as you sail through your 30s you discover that you really do need to make sure that you have money left for other things too. However hard you try, unless your pay packet is unnaturally inflated, you just can’t buy music the way you used to. Music streaming services help, but you just can’t shake the feeling that however good the reasons, you’ve lost touch a bit and you shouldn’t really be listening to the same things quite  so often.

Which is an appropriate way to finally come to The World’s End, the third film in the loose ‘Cornetto’ trilogy, the first two of which remain among my most loved films.  This one didn’t get a cinema release in South Africa, so I had to wait for a recent trip to the UK to smuggle a DVD back into the country with me. As we sat down to finally see it, I was in equal parts excited and nervous. Excited because director Edgar Wright is a masterful director of comedy, eschewing the obvious and staid for the inventive and memorable. Nervous, because I’ve been let down by many films and didn’t want to happen here. I’d approached Hot Fuzz, the second film in a similar way. I enjoyed it, but felt faintly led down after; it was only on re-viewings that I realised just how funny it was and grew to love it almost as much as the matchless first film, Shaun Of The Dead.

We’re in tribute-pastiche territory again, with five old schoolmates uniting in their hometown to complete a legendary 12-hostelry pub crawl they left incomplete back in the day. All but one of them – Gary the ring leader, the most admired/reviled of the group (Simon Pegg) – have moved on in life and revisit youth with mixed feelings. Gary has his issues too; he just hides them in plain sight.

As the pub crawl moves along, soundtracked by alarming number of the songs I’ve been revisiting just a bit too often, inevitably the story expands to take in aliens and plot turns out of Hitchhikers and Stepford. Much that made the first two films great is present and still great; the remixed recurring jokes, the brilliantly fight scenes, the scene transitions, the character interactions. As comedies go, it has more laughs than many.

I really, really liked it; but I didn’t embrace it. The first two films have affection for that which they are making fun of; and the characters are all good people to be with. Here there’s the former, but not always the latter. For Gary to be such a central figure you need to have something likeable about him to hold onto, and that’s worryingly absent here. In addition, if you’re going to take on faceless corporations and the flattening of local town commerce by corporations and chains, you have to give it a face. Which there isn’t here. You know the target is there, and many of the jokes are good ones. You just can’t quite join the dots, and the ending doesn’t quite do it well enough to really work.

Much of which I said in a very similar way at the time about Hot Fuzz. So it may well eventually take a place alongside its two forbears in my most-loved files. For now it’s close, but not quite close enough.

I watched this film at home on DVD.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Godzilla: a monster movie that isn’t a monster movie

I’ve been away from blogging for a month due to family illnesses. Sorry. I missed you. 

Monsters are rarely just monsters. As early as humans were recording for posterity the stories we told each other, in the early English epic poem Beowulf for instance, monsters have not only been written about but descirbed as something bigger than just themselves. Grendel  – the monstrous adversary in the early poem – appears to represent the feared foreign invader as much as he does an actual, or mythic, foe. On through the history of story-telling we have always created monsters which are far bigger than simply the ground they occupy. Which is why it’s odd, in the era of film as the dominant story-telling medium, that monster stories are considered the preserve of empty-headed festivals of increasingly meaningless destruction.

Which isn’t how Godzilla was conceived. A skyscraper-sized dinosaur-like creature, Godzilla was born as a way for a traumatised post-nuclear Japan to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki without talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors need to talk, but can’t; stories about something so patently absurd are a good way to do it. Long before Godzilla became the meaningless children’s television cartoon series of my schooldays, it was something far more important. When Hollywood took on Godzilla in the late 1990s, it gave us something so meaningless and empty that is was actually more dumb than that cartoon serial. Spectacular it may have been; worth-watching it most certainly was not. So Godzilla was left so sleep.

Who better to wake him up, however, than a director who knows how to talk about something without talking about it. In 2010, a young British director (Gareth Edwards) made his first feature film, a shot-on-a-shoestring budget road movie called Monsters. It was set in a world where monsters were a reality and people avoided them by rule of law. Some cinema-goers demanded money back because the monsters promised in the title were barely seen in the film. They were, of course; the complainers had just been looking for scary reptiles when they should have been looking at the people. Humans were the monsters: prejudiced, manipulative, destructive, dangerous. This was a scary, thrilling film with a dash of hypnotic beauty, about the human capacity for projecting our own monstrosity onto others.

So it was a bold, clever stroke to entrust a reawakened Godzilla to such a director. From this new film’s startlingly brilliant opening title sequence, we know we’re in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. The nuclear roots of Godzilla are acknowledged; we’re in the real life history of the real world, and Godzilla’s been tantalisingly out of frame for much of it. This incarnation is nuclear too – think Fukushima meltdown and tsunamis rather than an exploding bomb. Think of Godzilla eventually understood as a sleeping saviour from the real monsters rather than a senselessly rampaging beast. It’s a deceptively intelligent film; the performances are better than a vacuous script. The spectacle is … spectacular, but never dwarves humanity in the wrong way. This film doesn’t so much trample humans as put us in our place; awed, needful of saving and still capable of beauty.

Yes, there’s real beauty here. The monsters are well rendered (yes, plural monsters); but the real beauty is the way titanic struggles are subtly choreographed, events replayed in different contexts like repeating musical themes. The real highlight is one haunting sequence where a select group of the military skydive through smoke, skyscrapers and monsters into the heat of the battle’s destruction. It’s tense, terrifying and utterly beautiful. In the midst of all the destruction, there’s plenty of space for beauty.

This Godzilla sets out to awe, and largely succeeds in doing so, reminding us of our smallness without ever dehumanising. With a better script for an underused cast to work with, it could have been genuinely special. Instead it’s simply very good; despite pre-release prophecies of a box-office meltdown for the film, it’s performed well enough to have a sequel commissioned, with Gareth Edwards again expected to be at the helm. It turns out there really is a market for intelligent, beautiful and monstrous spectacle. We will never outgrow the need to talk about our monsters.

I saw this film in IMAX 3d. 

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com